The Joy of Priesthood
by Rev. John Jay Hughes
Thirty-six years ago, a 43-year-old professor of Catholic theology in Germany wrote: “It seems certain to me that very hard times await the Church. Her crisis has hardly begun.” Today the author of those words is Pope Benedict XVI. What form the hard times he predicted back in 1970 would take, then–Josef Ratzinger did not say. Today we know. The crisis of priestly sexual misconduct with minors, which burst upon Catholics in the United States in January 2002, is the most painful that we have ever experienced. Similar things have happened in other places.
If we hear less about them elsewhere, this is for two reasons. People in many places, the Latin countries in particular, are more keenly aware of something pointed out by retired archbishop of San Francisco John R. Quinn at the height of the sexual abuse crisis: “We have to dispose of the illusion that there was a time in the past when these behaviors did not occur and that there will be some future time when these behaviors will cease to occur. As long as there is human nature these problems will occur, and they have always occurred.”
The second reason for the disproportionate number of reports from the United States is our legal system. Because American tort law now gives lawyers a third to a half of the awards they obtain for their clients, the sums demanded of defendants have risen exponentially in recent decades. More than a decade ago a British friend told me that he had had to resign from Lloyds of London because of damage awards in American courts. The costs to the Catholic Church in the United States have been staggering—with no end in sight.
The Church has been through the fires of adversity before. Each time it has emerged purified and renewed. The Protestant Reformation produced the renewed and disciplined Church of the Counter-Reformation, with the Jesuits in the vanguard. From the fierce persecution of Catholics in the French Revolution came dozens of new religious orders for men and women, and dynamic missionary outreach in Africa and Asia. It was this recurrent pattern of renewal through suffering that caused then–Cardinal Ratzinger to say, only a few years ago: “The Church needs a revolution of faith. It must part with its goods, in order to preserve its treasure.” He was talking not about earthly but heavenly treasure, the good news of the gospel: that God loves sinners; that His love for us is a free gift, bestowed on us not because we are good enough, but because He is so good that He longs to share His love with us.
How are Catholic priests holding up under the avalanche of today’s bad publicity? Astonishingly well, according to surveys. Between September 2003 and April 2005, St. Luke’s Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, a treatment center for priests with addictions and psychological problems, questioned 1,286 priests at their annual convocations in 16 American dioceses about their experience of priesthood. Asked to comment on the statement, “Overall, I am happy as a priest,” more than 90 percent agreed. More than 81 percent said they would choose priesthood again. Only 6 percent were thinking of leaving. Could other professions match those numbers?
How is that possible? Why would any man in his right mind want to be a Catholic priest today? In the article cited above, Archbishop Quinn has an answer: “I believe . . . that this is the best time in the history of the Church to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason for being a priest or for remaining a priest—that is, to ‘be with’ Christ. It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other worldly gain or advantage. Those things either no longer exist or are swiftly passing. The priest of today is forced to choose whether he wants to give himself to the real Christ, who embraced poverty, including the poverty of the commonplace, rejection, misrepresentation—the real Christ of the gospels—or whether, with the mistaken throngs of Jesus’ time, he wants an earthly, worldly messiah for whom success follows upon success.”
Though I am occasionally asked why I am a priest, most often the question is: “Why did you become a Catholic?” Forty-seven years after being received into the Catholic Church, I am still asked that, most often by lifelong Catholics. I can see the eager hope in their eyes. They are looking for confirmation from a one-time outsider that “Catholic is best.” How difficult it is to disappoint them.
For the truth is that there was little in the pre–Vatican II Church that was attractive to me, an Anglican for 32 years, the last six of them a happy priest in the American Episcopal Church. The version of papal infallibility (for me a key difficulty), which I found in the tracts in countless Catholic churches on both sides of the Atlantic, strained credulity to the breaking point. “All other Christians are floundering in uncertainty,” they asserted. “We have an infallible voice in Rome which gives us the answer to every question.” Really? The pope gloriously reigning until 1958, Pius XII, appeared to be quite happy in the role assigned to him in this popular apologetic. Did Jesus want His Church, however, to have this kind of oracular infallibility? I could not find it in the New Testament. People who brought their questions to Jesus seldom received the answers they were looking for. Jesus would lay down a principle, often tell a story to illustrate it, and arouse consciences, and then send questioners away to apply the principle to their own lives.
Was I not attracted by the beautiful Catholic liturgy? I found it anything but beautiful. A convert far more eminent than I, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., who came to the Church from Calvinism, writes: “If there be anyone who contends that in order to be converted to the Catholic faith one must be first attracted by the beauty of the liturgy, he will have me to explain away. . . . I found myself actually repulsed by the elaborate symbolism in which the Holy Sacrifice is clothed.” As an Anglo-Catholic, whose personal religion was “Catholicism without the Pope” (I was never a Protestant), what repulsed me was not the elaborate symbolism, but its slipshod and shoddy performance. Save in the rare oasis of a Benedictine or Trappist monastery, I found the silent Latin Masses that I often attended irreverent and deeply off-putting.
Nor was I ever disillusioned with Anglicanism. Had that been the case, my decision about the Catholic Church at Easter 1960 would have been far easier. >From the time I was old enough to think about such things, I realized that Anglicanism was a theological house of cards. But it was my house. It was where the Lord had put me. Moreover, at ordination I had made promises of obedience and fidelity no less solemn than those made by Catholic priests. Could it be right to break those promises? The least that could be said was that I must not leave the place the Lord had assigned me without truly compelling reasons.
Anglicanism took me, as it had taken my father and grandfather before me, from the font to the altar. I loved it. I remain grateful to it. I am deeply saddened by its present disarray. Was Newman right in his view that, at bottom, Anglicanism is simply another version of Protestantism?
Devout and holy men and women in the Anglican Communion taught me almost all the Catholic truth I know, even today. I considered it then, and consider it today, aesthetically the most beautiful form of Christianity in the West—though I realized long ago that appreciation of its beauty requires a level of culture that limits its appeal. It was one of my Anglican seminary professors, the Englishman J. V. Langmead Casserly (whose lectures were second in brilliance only to those of Ratzinger a dozen years later), who pointed out that, unlike Protestantism and Catholicism, Anglicanism has no folk version.
What triggered my decision was contact with Catholics in continental Europe during an extended trip in 1959. When I told people at the Catholic University of Louvain (which would honor me a decade later with a visiting professorship) of my difficulty with oracular infallibility, I was brought up short with the response: “But that’s not what we believe at all.” Papal infallibility, my new friends told me, meant simply that on the rare occasions when the pope spoke to define the Church teaching, he would not misrepresent the Faith. (Two years later I would hear the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, lecturing in Innsbruck, put it more succinctly. Pointing out that there was no papal statement about the recondite theological question which he was discussing, Rahner said: “Of course, if a Pope had spoken about it ex cathedra, he would have been right—or at least not wrong.”)
This more modest explanation of papal infallibility seemed entirely reasonable. But was it authentic? Or were those who urged it upon me an unrepresentative avant garde, sure to be condemned by the pope, as Pius XII had condemned the teachings of some of his too-advanced theologians in the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis?
For close to a year these questions tormented me as I studied and reflected, praying for light to see where the path of truth and duty lay. During this whole period the question of the Church was never out of my waking thoughts for two hours together. I got off lightly. The “Cowley Father” (a member of an Anglican religious order), Rev. B. W. Maturin, who became a Catholic in 1897 and died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 after giving his life jacket to another passenger, was on the cross of theological indecision for ten years. Later, Catholic priests with no inkling of his ordeal would reproach him for “waiting too long.”
Added to the theological perplexities were personal difficulties: dislike of the triumphalist Church of Pius XII, and the desire not to wound my beloved priest-father, widowed by the death of my mother when I was only six years old. His life and priestly ministry had kindled my desire to follow in his footsteps. Philo- and not anti-Catholic, on the subject of Anglican priests who “perverted to Rome” (his term), he was unyielding. Were I to take this step, he told me, I would no longer be welcome in the family home. In the event, I never saw him again. We shall meet again in heaven, where mutual hurt will be replaced by unending joy.
In the end I became convinced that the claims and teaching of the Catholic Church were true. Clearly I could not continue to hold a ministerial commission in a Christian community that disputed those claims. I entered the Catholic Church, however, with feelings of guilt for deserting a priestly ministry to which I had aspired, without interruption, from age twelve, and which had brought me deep happiness. And I entered with a cold heart. For that I have always been grateful. The spiritual pilgrim with no expectation of future happiness is spared disappointments. All my surprises—though by no means all my experiences—have been happy ones.
The first happy surprise, and still the greatest, was the second Vatican Council of 1962–1965. My decision about the Church was motivated by the more open and less triumphalistic view of the Church to which Vatican II gave the stamp of authenticity. When I made my decision, however, this was the view of a minority—in the English-speaking world, a suspect minority. As the council unfolded, I felt like a man who had bet the farm on a dark horse and watched him come in a winner.
High on my list of unhappy experiences was the eight-year suspension of the priestly ministry that I loved, for me a kind of long Lent. When priesthood was finally restored to me in 1968, through conditional ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, I was overjoyed. One of the two priests who assisted me as I celebrated Mass the next day (he is a bishop in Germany today) said to me in the sacristy afterward: “You were so assured.” “I’m not doing this for the first time,” I told him.
Leaving the Episcopal Church was the hardest thing I have ever done. Only years later was I able to affirm, as I now do without hesitation, that entering the Catholic Church is the best thing I have ever done.
Commenting on the surveys of priests cited above, the American priest-sociologist Rev. Andrew Greeley wrote: “Priests who like being priests are among the happiest men in the world.” Those words lifted me out of my chair with excitement when I read them. “Andy, you’re right!” I e-mailed him: “I can confirm that from my own experience.” In his 2004 book, Priests: A Calling in Crisis, Father Greeley writes that the real problem with priestly morale today is that priests, though happy themselves, think that other priests are not happy.
Are we priests indifferent to the failings of our brothers who have abused the young? I don’t know a single priest who is not deeply saddened by the revelations of recent years. Some have said that they fear wearing clerical dress in public, lest they be vilified and scorned—the “rejection” mentioned by Archbishop Quinn, which links us with “the real Christ,” Himself rejected by those for whom He laid down His life.
Say, if you like, that I lead a sheltered life. But I have yet to encounter rejection. On the contrary, I have experienced love and support from those whom we priests were ordained to serve, far beyond anything we deserve. On Holy Thursday 2002, at the height of the sexual abuse crisis, St. Louis priests gathered for the Chrism Mass at which we annually renew our priestly commitment, and the bishop consecrates the Holy Oils to be used in the ensuing year for baptism, confirmation, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. As we walked in procession, more than 200-strong, into our cathedral, we passed through ranks of applauding laypeople holding signs that read: “We support our priests.” “We love our priests.” Did we deserve that outpouring of love and support? We knew we did not, but we were grateful nonetheless. I cannot have been the only priest whose eyes were moist.
No vocation brings uninterrupted joy. Every life is shadowed by the cross. A widow spoke for married people when she told me: “Father, when you walk up to the altar on your wedding day, you don’t see the Stations of the Cross.” If priesthood, like marriage, leads to Calvary, it leads beyond Calvary to resurrection—and unending joy.
There is, first, the joy of preaching the gospel: feeding God’s people from the table of His word. An evangelical hymn defines the teacher’s task thus: “Tell me the old, old story / Of Jesus and his love.” John’s Gospel says it more briefly, in words once posted inside pulpits for the preacher to see: “Sir, we would like to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21). His story, and Jesus’ words, uphold us when we are down, rebuke us when we go astray, and fill our mouths with laughter and our tongues with joy (to use the Psalmist’s words) when the sunshine of God’s love shines upon us.
There is also the joy of pastoral ministry. Like priests everywhere, I have witnessed miracles of God’s grace in the people we serve. One small example: Not many years ago a man came into my confessional bruised and broken from a failed marriage. He was then one of our CEO Catholics (Christmas and Easter Only); today he is a daily communicant and a frequent penitent. His story is by no means unique.
What nourishes me most, however—next to the daily half-hour I spend waiting on God in silence before Mass—is the privilege, so far beyond any man’s deserving, of celebrating Mass and feeding God’s holy people with the Bread of Life. It was that which drew me to priesthood when I was not yet in my teens. Every time I served Mass, I thought: “One day I’ll stand there. I’ll wear those vestments. I’ll say those words.”
As a Catholic priest I have experienced the joy of celebrating Mass all over the world: in tiny chapels and great cathedrals; in hotel rooms in China and Vietnam; on little Rottnest Island off Australia’s west coast; at Mother Teresa’s tomb in Calcutta; on ships at sea, from small sailing vessels to 2,000-passenger cruise ships; in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice and at Notre Dame in Paris, where I was asked to offer prayers in German and English for the hordes of tourists who often outnumber the local worshipers. Everywhere the welcome has been the same, from brother priests to laypeople of all ages and both sexes, whose devotion and faith inspire us priests and often put us to shame.
Writing in April 2005 to my old teacher in Münster, Josef Ratzinger, to express my delight at his election as pope, and to assure him of my prayers, I closed the letter, “In the joy of our common priesthood.” What more can one say than that?
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Rev. John Jay Hughes is a church historian and a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese. His memoir, No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace, will be published in 2007. This article first published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
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